Manchester United must do better by Hojlund despite his Ten Hag growing pains

Ryan Baldi
Manchester United striker Rasmus Hojlund
Rasmus Hojlund had a fine debut Premier League season

Rasmus Hojlund had a difficult first season but coped admirably in the circumstances and Manchester United really must do better by him going forward.


Rasmus Hojlund’s debut season in the Premier League ended how it should have begun.

In games Manchester United were already leading at the point of his introduction, the 21-year-old striker came off the bench against Newcastle and Brighton exhibiting the fearlessness of youth and considerable conviction in front of goal, scoring each time to seal his club’s first pair of back-to-back league victories since February.

This sort of super-sub role would have been ideal for a 20-year-old striker moving to a new league in a new country; a young player who possessed considerable talent and unquestionable upside, but who had never previously scored more than nine league goals in a single season. For a youngster with much to prove and even more to learn, the odd start here and there in between cameos from the bench would have made sense as the best diet of appearances to feed his development.

But for most of the season, that hasn’t been Hojlund’s role. Instead, after arriving from Atalanta in a £64 million deal last summer, the Dane has been relied upon to spearhead United’s attack.

It has been a hefty burden for one so young to carry. And to Hojlund’s credit there have been long stretches of the season when he had thrived under it. Despite United’s exit from the Champions League in the group stage, for example, Hojlund amassed an impressive return of five goals from six outings in Europe’s premier club competition.

And there was an eight-game spell between Boxing Day and mid-February in which he scored eight goals and registered two assists. Three goals in his last six Premier League outings for the 2023-24 campaign marked a period of fertile form, too.

Overall, Hojlund’s career-best return of 16 goals from 42 appearances represents solid productivity.Yet there have been times – often long, drawn-out phases – during the campaign when he has struggled. He went scoreless in his first 15 league games for the club, before finally breaking his duck post-Christmas and launching into his best run of scoring yet in a United shirt. Then, after missing a month through injury, he returned to action in mid-March and mustered just one goal in 10 games, leading to manager Erik ten Hag dropping the striker and inadvertently stumbling into the kind of supplementary role his expensive young signing ought to have been deployed in from the off.

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Despite Hojlund toiling this term, it is unfair to dump too much blame at the 21-year-old’s door. A degree of inconsistency is baked into the existence of young footballers; the ones who arrive and thrive straight away are the exception, not the norm.

And United haven’t exactly aided Hojlund’s chances of thriving either. He has averaged just 1.58 shots per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season. By way of contrast, back-to-back Golden Boot winner Erling Haaland averaged 4.3; Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez, whose return of 11 league goals for the campaign was only one more than Hojlund’s final total, averaged 4.7. Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, ostensibly a winger rather than an out-and-out striker, averaged 3.3, as did Phil Foden.

Now, shot generation needn’t be entirely incumbent on team-mates; many an elite forward can conjure their own opportunities and that is arguably an area in which Hojlund can afford to be more aggressive.

But there is no escaping the fact the service the former Copenhagen striker has received since arriving at Old Trafford has been woefully substandard. On average, he received 4.63 progressive passes (defined as any pass that moves the ball 10 yards or more closer to the opponent’s goal or into the penalty area) per 90 in the league in 2023-24 and had four touches per 90 in the opponent’s penalty area.

Those averages for Haaland: 4.44 and 6.44. For Nunez: 9.07 and 8.46. For Saka: 15.7 and 8.36. For Foden: 8.49 and 5.99.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare the service provided for those players who operate within the division’s best sides and are surrounded by the best creative talent in the league to a United team who’ve just recorded their lowest-ever Premier League finish.

But a look at the strikers at sides lower down the table is no more flattering to United’s efforts to properly service their big-money centre-forward.

Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke: 4.99 progressive passes received per 90 and 5.85 touches in the opponent’s box. Dominic Calvert-Lewin at Everton: 5.05 and 5.55. Brentford’s Ivan Toney: 6.09 and 4.16.

Given the inadequate service his has received, Hojlund’s scoring return begins to look more impressive. The chances he saw in league action were worth an expected goals total of 7.6, meaning through the quality – or luck, considering the relatively small sample size – of his finishing, his tally of 10 goals represented a serious over-performance.

There is talk now that, amid Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS’ Old Trafford rejuvenation project, a new, more experienced striker will be sought in the transfer market this summer. Given what he has overcome in his maiden United campaign and the promise he has shown, the club need to be wary of killing Hojlund’s progress and confidence by acquiring a scorer who will overshadow the expensive youngster. Hojlund needs help up front and an easing of his burden is necessary. But a ready-made hot-shot with half a decade of remaining prime could prove counter-productive to the Dane’s development.

An honest appraisal of Hojlund’s first season in England would read a lot like the school report of many a capable yet disinterested teen: lots of potential, could do better.

Next season, United absolutely must do better by him.

More: Rasmus Hojlund | Erik ten Hag | Sir Jim Ratcliffe